I know that the vast majority of the Packers readership here are not soccer fans, but allow me to very briefly draw a parallel that many of you—whilst not being aware of—may find striking in light of what’s been happening at Lambeau this year…
On August 19, 1995, the manager of Manchester United, Alex Ferguson, was facing a heck of a lot of problems. That summer off-season, he’d sold three of his most tried and trusted veterans—all of whom had been integral to two Premiership titles as well as an FA Cup trophy. His charismatic French playmaker Eric Cantona was still banned until October for attacking a fan at a game and a team made up mostly of relative rookies had just been beaten easily 3-1 by a mediocre Aston Villa team. Pundits everywhere were questioning what the supposedly shrewd Scot was doing and many started predicting that such a young team would be unable to continue the successful stint because of such a dearth of experience.
Nobody summed this mood up better than the analyst Alan Hansen on the BBC’s flagship highlights show Match of the Day. Hansen, a tough as nails defender and a key member of the Liverpool dynasty of the late 1970s and 1980s, dissected what had gone wrong for Ferguson’s side and then spoke the immortal line, “You’ll never win anything with kids”. United however thought otherwise. United ultimately went on to do a League and Cup double, stunning the fans and critics alike with a brutally potent mix of youth and experience. Previously unknown youngsters like Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, the Neville brothers and some guy called David Beckham went on to become internationally renowned players and United have since enjoyed almost unparalleled success for an unprecedented length of time in the English game.
Sometimes, it just goes to show that people are in management for a reason.
In the autumn of 2010, the Lambeau faithful was restless. The Pack was a team of the walking wounded, a team built on youth and almost exclusively through the draft. They had no running game to speak of, many draftniks questioned why some seemingly obvious off-season needs had not been addressed and an offense that had seemed ready to light up the league was about as consistent as Jon Gruden’s quarterback selection policy in his last year at Tampa.
Ted Thompson, Green Bay’s GM, was the man in the firing line and he was refusing to budge. Wisconsinites clamoured for a trade for Marshawn Lynch and for the ousting of AJ Hawk, seen by many as a high pick not living up to his billing. The NFL world was almost united (as much as that world could be united) in the view that Green Bay was one bold step from a trip to Dallas and the Super Bowl. The trade deadline came and went, and after back-to-back defeats to Washington and Miami, many wrote off the Packers completely.
Sometimes, a long-term strategy pays off over the quick-fix the armchair observer calls for.
Since an unexpected 9-0 victory over the highly fancied New York Jets, we’ve seen the fruits of Thompson’s labours. After a shootout loss to Arizona ending the previous season, cornerback was seen as maybe the most pressing need going into the draft. Thompson didn’t draft one and when he brought in undrafted free agent Sam Shields, just about everyone assumed it would be for his value in the return game and more broadly on special teams. Shields has since matured at an astonishing rate and shows more than enough potential to be a long-term starter in the years ahead. Rookie tackle Bryan Bulaga stepped in capably and unspectacularly when the aging Mark Tauscher went on IR and whilst he’s no Forrest Gregg, he’s no Allen Barbre either.
The current roster is littered with players who have come in as rough diamonds that when called upon, have covered, and in some cases taken over, the starting role for the foreseeable future. People like Desmond Bishop, who up until Nick Barnett went on IR was jokingly known as ‘Mr August’, Tramon Williams, going from UDFA to Pro Bowl calibre, Josh Sitton, a fifth round draft choice who should have gone to Hawaii this year, and Tim Masthay, who has made Jeremy Kapinos’ name a distant—if not horrifying—memory, have all contributed to the Packers' success. And next year, who’s to say that the likes of a Mike Neal, Brett Swain or Morgan Burnett won’t step up. The people who in the past have criticized Thompson for not being aggressive enough (and I count myself among them) are now having to rapidly reassess their thoughts on the matter.
Also, it should be noted that Thompson is not averse to taking the jump to go and get the player he wants. No cheesehead with any honesty could say the decision to move for Charles Woodson was anything less than inspired, just as much the trade up to go and get Clay Matthews with the Patriots’ first pick in the ’09 draft. Even his unheralded moves more often than not come up trumps. Howard Green, who was let go by the Jets for being overweight, has become a vital cog in Dom Capers’ scheme against the run. In doing so, he’s formed with BJ Raji and Ryan Pickett what is maybe the biggest defensive front in the NFL. Erik Walden had been let go by the Dolphins, but has since become a versatile if unspectacular compliment to Matthews with a mix of moderate pass-rush and good quickness and nous. Perhaps the most crucial midseason move though was getting Charlie Peprah back. Here was a player who showed very little in his previous spell at the franchise, but has come back as a hard-hitting safety who can drop into coverage when needed without being a weak link. He’s made Atari Bigby’s days in Wisconsin numbered and the perceived future at the position Morgan Burnett is really going to have a fight on his hands for the starting role.
That is the theme that runs through the roster: building on youth, valuing draft picks and backing it up with solid but unspectacular additions if required.
Indeed, on current form, Thompson may go down as putting together Green Bay’s best draft if Clay Matthews and BJ Raji continue to blossom as they have been this year. The only one that could come close to that is perhaps Thompson’s piece de resistance—the dealing of Number 4.
How could you ruthlessly move from a first-ballot hall-of-famer to a player who for the most part had looked thoroughly unimpressive in limited action and had done very little at the time to justify his first-round draft status?
Well Thompson did and if Aaron Rodgers leads Green Bay to victory in Dallas, who are we to question Thompson on any draft pick in April?
Perhaps the most telling thing that showed the dramatic change in perception about Thompson was that the fans’ website www.firetedthompsonnow.com recently posted the following message:
I’m not afraid to admit it. I was wrong.